You can tell a lot about a person by the way he walks – or at least you can if you’re Dr. Edward Lemaire, research associate at the Ottawa Rehabilitation Centre. In his line of work the more information he can get about the way patients are walking the better he knows how well they are recovering.
How symmetric is a patient’s gait? How even is their pace? Are they leaning to the left or right, forward or back? That’s just the beginning of the investigation Lemaire and other rehab workers must do and usually the results are attained through a series of lengthy tests that take up the time of the patient and the caregiver. So it’s no wonder Lemaire wishes he could get all the information he needed from a patient at the moment they sit down in his office for a check up.
“It’d be nice if you had something where at the point of patient contact you’d have something that could give you information that would be hard to get otherwise,” he says.
Lemaire started by building a device that patients would wear on their belts as they went about their day. The first generation of his project required rehab patients to basically strap a circuit board to their pants. It contained a GPS sensor, a light intensity detector, accelerometer, temperature and humidity reader, and a camera. But the patients working with Lemaire in the second generation of his project are likely much happier. Instead of strapping a tape-covered component board to their belt, they get to use a device much more accepted in society – a smartphone, namely a BlackBerry 10 phone.
With this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas heralding the age of wearable technology for the consumer market with watches, jewelry, and chip-embedded clothing, it’s easy to forget that smartphones could be used a type of wearable technology too. In the age of the quantified self where companies like FitBit are convincing consumers they should know how restless they were overnight and how many steps they took in a day, Lemaire and other health professionals have been digging deeper into how tech can track movement in as detailed a way as possible. Presenting his work at the Strategy Institute’s Mobile Healthcare Summit later this month, Lemaire will share how he’s used BlackBerry 10 to develop an app that tracks patient movements by making use of just about every sensor a smartphone has to offer – magnetometer, accelerometer, altimeters, gyroscopes, and video camera included.
“We can give a full activity report with context to motion just by downloading an app to your phone and then putting it on your right front hip, in a holster pointed forward,” he says. “If people can put up with a recorder hung around their neck to monitor heart rate, they can definitely put a phone in a belt holster.”
Lemaire chose to develop his Biomechanics Augmented Reality (BAR) app for BlackBerry 10 first for more than just patriotism. BlackBerry 10 offers a good multi-tasking operating system, so BAR can launch the video camera in conjunction with accessing sensor data and do calculations at the same time. The sensors yield data at a reasonable rate of 50 times per second, Lemaire says. That’s needed to quickly make decisions in the app and capture critical data.
“We need to make a decision every second,” he says. “Let’s say you’re coming up a ramp. Usually about a meter and a half up, with an altimeter I can be reasonably sure that you’re going up something. I’d want to know at that point so I can take a short video clip of the activity to see if you’re walking outdoors on a grassy hill.”
If the decision to start recording a video were made even 10 seconds later, the person could have completed walking up the slope and moved on.
Available since August, BAR has been downloaded more than 1,000 times in more than 32 countries. It’s available for free on BlackBerry World. Lemaire was helped in his project by the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council with a $150,000 grant – a portion of which BlackBerry chipped in. BlackBerry also provided Lemaire’s team with some handsets to use in development and testing.
Although at one point he found himself – along with the rest of BlackBerry users – waiting for the long-promised release of BlackBerry 10 OS and new devices from the troubled Waterloo, Ont.-based manufacturer, he doesn’t regret developing on the platform. “I’m glad we waited because we could have wasted money trying to do things,” he says. “I kept thinking like most people it was a month away.”
Porting the app to Android and iOS platforms are in the cards. But as Ottawa Hospital Rehab Centre isn’t a mobile app developer company, it can’t just hire someone to do that, Lemaire says.
First, Lemaire hopes to add even more functionality to the app. Right now it can be used as a measurement device by being worn on a patient, or being held by a doctor to measure angles using a grid overlay and the video camera. But Lemaire hopes to soon add the ability to track visual markers using the camera so measurements could be taken simply by physicians using their hands.
For example, a doctor could put the visual markers on their hands and calibrate them with the app. Then the doctor could simply place their hands on the patients to measure the angle between two joints – such as a hip and knee – to understand the range of motion a patient is capable of.
“It’s a little nicer to actually have your hands on the person, so you can actually feel the spot on the bone you want to measure from,” he says.
BAR isn’t the only app Lemaire’s group has put out. There’s also a Data Logger for BlackBerry 10 that can be used by developers to simply capture sensor data and save it to a file. Another app will timestamp a video that’s being recorded when the user touches the screen.
Lemaire says his tech-savvy approach to rehab is still in its early stages. But given enough exposure and release to other smartphone platforms, and rehab physicians could give the term “mobility” a whole different meaning.